It’s Not Just You. The Post-Pandemic Workplace is Stressful for Everyone

Explore the impact of post-pandemic work-related stress on individuals in Canada and worldwide. Learn about the prevalence of stress in various work environments and the challenges faced by remote, on-site, and first responder workers.
person stressed at work

Whether it takes place at home, in an office, or out on the front lines, work can be a stressful experience. In fact, Canadian workers are among the most stressed in the world.

“A lot of people don’t even realize they are experiencing moral distress. They have this general sense of outrage at the system and don’t see it for what it is.”

Work-related stress existed long before the pandemic, but it rose to new heights as our workplace fundamentals changed overnight. While the terrifying uncertainty of the early pandemic is now far behind us, the aftershocks continue to impact our mental wellbeing.

A Capterra survey found that while the percentage of Canadian employees reporting negative mental health quadrupled during the pandemic, that percentage hadn’t diminished in 2022. In fact, it had increased slightly.

A 2022 Gallup report found that Canada is one of the most
stressed regions of the world. In 2022, 44% of employees said they experienced a lot of stress the previous day. This was the highest percentage recorded in a decade.

Workers of all types are feeling stressed

Whether you perform your job remotely, on site, or on the front lines, you may be feeling work-related stress.

Nearly one in five workers in Canada are now fully remote, and while many people enjoy this work style, for others, it has created feelings of isolation and blurred the boundaries between work and life in an unhealthy way. A 2022 survey by Cisco found that stress levels had increased for more than one in five remote or hybrid workers (22%).

Many on-site workers are also struggling for reasons that include health concerns and badly-behaved customers. According to Capterra, nearly one-quarter of on-site workers (24%) rated their mental health as “bad” or “very bad.”

But first responders—the people whose work puts them in emergency situations regularly—experience some of the highest levels of work-related stress.

Alexis Winter, former Director of Nursing at Homewood Ravensview, a Canadian private mental health and addiction inpatient treatment facility on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, worked with many first responders through the facility’s Guardians Program.

She agreed that the pandemic and its aftermath have worsened the mental health of front-line workers of all types.

“They’re putting their bodies on the line, and the general population wasn’t supporting them,” Winter explained. “Health care staff were putting themselves in dangerous situations and feeling villainized. They were feeling like, ‘We don’t matter.’”

The phenomenon is directly correlated with more acute conditions such as burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Winter. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for people to ignore the symptoms.

“A lot of people don’t even realize they are experiencing moral distress. They have this general sense of outrage at the system and don’t see it for what it is.”

The impact of work-related stress

Stress is a natural reaction to situations that seem overwhelming or threatening, priming our bodies to release stress hormones that trigger a “fight or flight” response that can protect us from danger. In a workplace setting, these situations can include physically unsafe environments, discrimination, bullying, unrealistic workloads, financial uncertainty, lack of autonomy—the list goes on and on.

But when we experience repeated exposure to these triggers over time, stress stops having a beneficial effect and starts adversely affecting our mental and physical health. In addition to anxiety, burnout, depression, and PTSD, stress can cause hair loss, memory loss, acne, hives, ulcers, heart disease, hypertension, acid reflux, headaches, insomnia, fertility issues, sexual dysfunction, obesity, and increased consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Many first responders are at elevated risk of mental health issues related to their work.

69% of Canadian journalists and media workers suffer from anxiety and 53% have sought medical help to deal with work stress and mental health.

48% of Canadian nurses say the pandemic affected their work-life balance to a great extent and 50% experienced abuse by clients or the public at work.

53% of Canadian physicians report symptoms of burnout in 2022—1.7 times higher than the pre-pandemic number.

50% of Canadian police officers reported having high levels of perceived stress.

86% of firefighters in the Northwestern Ontario fire service experienced symptoms of PTSD.

Recognizing the problem

Being able to recognize when stress is becoming harmful is critical to mental health.

People usually know when they’re stressed at work, but many see it as a normal part of having a job. If you find yourself dreading work or feeling hopeless and helpless on a regular basis, it’s a sign that your work stress may be rising to unhealthy levels.

“It’s about self-awareness,” Winter explained. “Noticing whether you’re feeling really tired, whether you’re feeling negative toward things you used to believe in. How do you feel after taking a break? Do you come back feeling good and ready to work? If you don’t feel that sense of regeneration after time away from work, it’s a sign that stress has become trauma or moral distress.”

The continuum model provided by the Mental Health Commission of Canada is a helpful tool for understanding mental health as a continuum and gauging the severity of a person’s reactions to workplace stress. By evaluating yourself against each point in the continuum, you can gain a better understanding of your mental health and your potential need for lifestyle changes or professional help.

This continuum based on the model developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada can help individuals determine whether it’s time to make lifestyle changes or seek help to cope with work-related stress.

Coping with work-related stress

If your work-related stress levels are rising, there are things you can do to manage them. Here are some of the self-care strategies recommended by the team at Homewood.

Recharge. Take regular and assigned breaks at work. Take your vacation days, avoid working unnecessary overtime, and focus on rest and recovery whenever possible.

Prioritize. Know your limits. Create a routine for creating a boundary between work and the rest of your life. Make exercise, proper nutrition, and adequate sleep a priority.​

Organize. Create a work environment that is tidy and organized. Break down seemingly overwhelming projects into smaller, achievable tasks.

Celebrate. Recognize and celebrate your successes (big and small) and try to keep your self-critic in check.

Connect. Seek the support of your team members or leader, and access organizational supports, such as health and counselling resources.

Winter also offers these coping mechanisms from her own practice.

Avoid relying on drugs and alcohol. “If you come home feeling really stressed out about work, don’t reach for a glass of wine or a beer immediately. Even if you only have a single glass each evening, try bringing yourself down in other ways so that using these substances doesn’t become a habit.”

Adopt a mindfulness practice. “If you’re experiencing depression, you’re living your life in the past. If you’re experiencing anxiety, you’re living your life in the future. A daily mindfulness practice, even 10 minutes before bed, helps you bring yourself into the present and alleviate those symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

Create better boundaries. “Something as simple as turning your phone off when you leave work can make a huge difference, because even that five-minute check is actually taking up 20% of your brain space for the next little while. I now have a separate work phone and a personal phone.”

Ask for help. “If you’ve taken some time away from work and you’re still feeling burned out, or if your beliefs about the safety of the world or the goodness of people has changed, it’s time to go beyond self-care and start asking for help.”

An experience we all share

Many of us are lucky enough to earn a sense of purpose from our work as well as a pay cheque. But with so much of our time and identity tied up in work activities, it’s easy for work to become a source of significant stress, and the pandemic only intensified the phenomenon. Whether we work from home, in an office, or on the front lines, it’s not uncommon for the daily grind to grind down our mental health.

What’s important is to recognize when our stress levels creep up so that we can take action, whether that involves rebalancing our work-life focus, practicing better self-care, or reaching out to people who can help us heal.